Could Thermite Be Used As a Weapon by Terrorists?
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Could Thermite Be Used As a Weapon by Terrorists?

What Is Thermite

Unless you are into pyrotechnics or familiar with military incendiary devices, you have probably never heard of Thermite. I know the name sounds like some new portable cooler or a high-tech fabric, but in fact it is a pyrotechnic composition whose incendiary reaction was discovered in1893 by a German chemist, Hans Goldschmidt. The reaction created by this compound is commonly called the Goldschmidt reaction.

Thermite is essentially a compound created by mixing metal powder and metal oxide. The metal powder derived from aluminum, magnesium, calcium or titanium, is used as the fuel for the reaction. Metal oxides such as Boron, silicon, chromium manganese, iron, copper or lead, are used as the oxidizer. Without going into the chemistry of the process, basically what happens is, when ignited, the fuel removes and uses the oxygen content of the oxidized metal to burn. This chemical reaction produces extremely hot slag and will burn at temperatures of 4,500 degrees Fahrenheit. There is no explosion, but rather a fountain of molten metal. At these temps, this compound can melt and burn just about any substance.

Thermite is extremely dangerous to burn. In addition to the exceedingly high temps, once the reaction has begun, it is impossible to stop until the fuel and oxidizer have been exhausted. Since it has it’s own oxygen supply (the oxidizing metal), smothering will not put it out. Due to the high temperature, water is no good either. In fact putting water on the compound while burning will likely cause a steam explosion.

Thermite is easily stored without danger at normal temperatures. Even when heated to red-hot temps, it will not ignite. Thermite requires heating to white-hot before it will ignite. Ignition of Thermite only occurs at temps in excess of 2000 degrees Fahrenheit. The materials to make Thermite are common and easy to acquire. Ignition sources are also readily available in the form of children’s sparklers or manganese ribbon.

With it’s obviously destructive potential, ease of material availability and stable storage properties, one might ask, “Could Thermite be used by terrorists”? Well, the answer is yes, and no. To better understand that answer, one must know the types of real-world applications Thermite is, and has been used for.

Thermite is commonly used in industrial applications for welding. Because of its intense heat, it is perfect for welding dense metals and providing superior strength. It has been commonly used for welding rail tracks. Thermite has also had many military uses a weapon. In WWII, Thermite was used in the form of grenades. Placed in the barrel of a large gun or in its breach, it would render the weapon useless as it could no longer be loaded or fired. It was also used in elevation or rotation equipment on weapons, radar units and the like. Once ignited, it would weld the components together rendering the target useless. In more recent times, the military used Thermite TH3 which has been mixed with other compounds to help in reducing ignition temperatures, create longer or larger flames and increase the thermal effect and is used in ant-material/weapon use.

Thermite in it’s most common form of aluminum and iron oxide may produce intense heat, however the thermal effect is fairly localized and it does not produce a lot of fire. And though it could be used to weaken support beams in a structure for example, it would require a significant quantity to do real damage, quantities that would be rather obvious. I expect someone would suspect something was up when spotting several canisters piled up around a buildings support structures. So, though it is a dangerous compound, it is unlikely that alone, it would be a terrorist’s weapon of choice.

On the other hand, Thermite might make an adequate catalyst for the detonation of a dirty bomb or small nuclear device. Combined with plutonium, which seems far too commonly available to terrorists on the black market, Thermite might be a compound a terrorist would consider using. Here is the scary part. Go onto e-bay and you can buy this compound unhindered and anonymously.

So, if you were to buy pre-made Thermite or search around town for its component compounds, you may not be tagged a terrorist, but I’ll bet that some fellows at Department of Homeland Security will be watching you.

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